Pixar Artist Mike Wu has been illustrating and writing children's books on the side since 2015. In addition to writing a Pixar Animation Studios Artist Showcase Series book called Henri’s Hats, he’s been publishing a book series for Disney Press about an artistic elephant named Ellie. The adorable elephant’s fourth book, Ellie Makes a Friend, comes out April 7th and finds Ellie getting jealous when an artistic panda named Ping joins her zoo. I recently got to interview Mike Wu about his most recent book and the inspiration behind it.
Alex: I've been following the Ellie series since the first book was published 2015. I love the watercolor style, which reminds me of some of the early Disney animated shorts and features. Were Dumbo or Elmer the Elephant sources of inspiration for you? If not, what influenced this particular style for you?
Mike Wu: First off, thank you so much for your support of my work. I am grateful and humbled by your words. Indirectly, I’m sure I was influenced by Dumbo as I’m such a fan and student of the early Disney artists; However, Ellie honestly came after brainstorming off my watercolor sketches from elephants I had painted at the Zoo and refining and refining until I got her just right.
Alex: These stories feature a Zookeeper named Walt, who has a few physical similarities to Walt Disney in his twenties. Is that a coincidence?
Mike Wu: Again, probably not directly, but Disney has been such a big part of my life that I’m not surprised his likeness may end up in my books in some way.
Alex: There's a woman in this book who reminded me of a Pixar artist named Deanna Marsigliese. Do you pay homage to any of your friends and family through the characters in your books?
Mike Wu: There is a young girl in my first Ellie book that is modeled off of my oldest daughter and believe it or not, Ping was designed with the likeness of my 2nd baby girl in mind. She was 6-months-old when I was starting to paint Ping and starting to sit up and it was this position and her cute rounded back that helped me master the shape of Ping.
Alex: Ellie Makes a Friend deals with jealousy when Ellie first realizes that Ping's art is getting more attention than hers. It's a very relatable emotion for kids and Ellie learns to deal with it in such a way that leads to her becoming friends with Ping rather than enemies. What do you hope kids and the parents who read this to them take away from this story?
Mike Wu: I honestly feel like this is such an important message for today; To celebrate our differences, not give into fear so that you can accept and learn about new things and new people. We have so much we can learn about others that will in turn help us grow as individuals.
Alex: Ping's character is distinctly Chinese and brings with her elements of her culture, including the artform of calligraphy. When did you first get into calligraphy and did you run into any challenges blending that style with Ellie's watercolor world?
Mike Wu: Chinese calligraphy has always been a part of my life. I used to watch my Dad hand write menu items onto red rice paper for our restaurant. Some of his calligraphy is represented in Pings writing. I always felt it was an art form that took years to learn, let alone master. The glossary of Chinese words were written by a calligraphy master named Raymond Tam. I was lucky my mom asked him to write the characters for me. They have a very stout and chubby style and flow reminiscent of Ping. I think it’s a perfect match!
Alex: As Ellie learns to appreciate and understand Ping's artform, she draws a yin yang. The two characters are like yin and yang as well. Was that a goal when you first started this project or did you discover it along the way?
Mike Wu: Writing a story is a very fluid process. I usually have a theme and general direction I want to go with the book. I knew I wanted to write a story about the differences between Ping and Ellie in their styles and personalities. As I wrote and revised and sketched, I realized they are two sides of the same coin. In staying with the theme, I wanted to visually represent it with eastern iconography.
Alex: In the end, Ellie and Ping learn each other's artistic styles and collaborate and share in new ways. Have you lived through personal experiences with other artists that inspired this latest chapter in Ellie's story?
Mike Wu: At Pixar there is a lot of collaboration and we mix many different styles and points of view to create something wonderful. However, a distinctive style might become lost in service of the overall style but the hope is you will discover something new you could never discover on your own.
Alex: Your books come with "Gifts" that live on after the story is finished, like the song from Ellie in Concert. This time around, you've offered words from the story in Chinese calligraphy. Do you have any recommended resources for kids or parents who are inspired to try it themselves?
Mike Wu: There are many resources online. Not all of them are good but there are some informative videos on YouTube. There’s a good website, TeachKidsChinese.com, that offers some Chinese worksheets for kids. If you don’t have a brush pen you could use a marker, but make sure to lay some newspaper under the writing paper so you don’t accidentally mark up your table.
Alex: I always get excited when a new Ellie book arrives from Disney Press. Are there currently plans for another story with this lovable elephant?
Mike Wu: I certainly hope so! I have many more stories to tell with Ellie and Friends. Thank you for your great questions and continued support of my work.
Click here to read our review of Ellie Makes a Friend.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.